|by John Everett Millais, 1852|
“One change,” wrote Machiavelli, “always leaves a dovetail into which another will fit” (2). And change is exactly what the Renaissance was: change in language, change in religion, change in politics. Governments became highly competitive, both between nations and within the murky confines of individual courts, and melded with new societal values tied to literature and the measure of man (Knecht). The result was a battleground of posturing and preening as nobles vied for social supremacy, and from this murk arose the word sprezzatura, or excellence without apparent effort.
This was the ideal of the courtier, the standard imposed upon him: that he must excel in all arts, all sport, all methods of leadership, all morality, all the things that might possibly reflect on his character. He was the epitome of the good in humanity – and he rose to the position without effort, because he was simply that good.
Now, we all know this to be bologna. Or we believe it to be bologna; our current society is painfully aware of the duality of human nature. We see it, we live it, we are it: we post it online, share it, blog it, unabashedly vomiting the cruelty of humanity onto public spaces where names go unknown and faces unseen.
Written in 1610, toward the end of the Renaissance, The Tempest was Shakespeare’s exploration of the Court and human duality. An eclectic group of nobles find themselves stranded and separated on a strange island of strange magics; and here, ripped from the familiar comforts and wealth of their native courts, they begin to reveal their true selves, the true man muffled and smothered by the inherent artificialities of government.
Alonso, King and top of the food chain is, perhaps, the only character in the play who doesn’t think of his political power or position. His only thoughts throughout the play are for his lost son. Indeed, Alonso is a peculiar noble. Single minded, somewhat oblivious, he seems to function mostly as an object of pitiful desire: desire, because the other characters aspire to his power; pitiful, because the most powerful man, politically, is reduced to a shuffling, shambling mess of melancholy, grief, and guilt.
His son – very much alive, and very much in love – also retains his goodness, and perhaps embodies the sprezzatura man. He is athletic (2.1 114-123), physically attractive (1.2 417-419), and in the face of enforced servitude, declared, “The very instant that I saw you did / My heart fly to your service, there resides / To make me slave to it” (3.1 64-67). Key to his character is his retention of these qualities, even after his fall from prince to slave. The happiest man throughout the play, Ferdinand is the poster boy for everything the nobleman strove to be.
Their associates are not. Sebastian, brother to the King, and Antonio, plot regicide. When asked after his conscience, Antonio scoffs, “Ay, sir, where lies that? …I feel not / This deity in my bosom” (2.1 277-279). Quick to lie, quick to scheme and plot for their own advancement, Sebastian and Antonio are closer to modern expectations of politicians. Though painted in a veneer of courtly goodness, their insides rot.
There exists another island, another strange land were men lose themselves, are stripped of public personas and reveal the face behind the mask. But our island has a name.
It’s the internet. Specifically, it is the public forum, where names and faces change owners in an eye blink, where even mothers might be prevented from recognizing their own sons. Hidden behind anonymity, we become fearless. Where is the consequence? Who can catch us, who will know?
Ours is a world of King Alonso`s, lost Ferdinand`s and rotting Antonio`s.
This section needs more work. And perhaps a better argument. Hrm.
Machiavelli, Niccoló. The Prince. Trans. N. H. Thomson. Ed. Philip Smith. Dover Publications, Inc.: New York (1992). Print.
Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Ed. Virginia Mason Vaughan, Alden T. Vaughan. Bloomsbury Arden
Shakespeare: London (2014). Print.
Knecht, Robert J. “The French Renaissance Court.” History Today 57.7 (July 2007): n.pag. History Today. Web. 4 October 2015.